A Look Back at Phantasy Star

Frikkin’ Sega, man.

(Sorry for the hiatus, Dear Readers– one of us has been working a new job, the other on a big creative project, and we’ve been putting the finishing touches on our Metropolis project. Normal posting is resuming now).

One of the authors of this blog did not have a Nintendo as a kid. If you hadn’t already guessed after our article on Sonic 2006, one of us grew up as a Sega kid. And part of being a Sega kid means having different experiences from a lot of gamers. Mario games always feel a little sluggish. You gain a real affection for weird and offbeat concepts like Seaman and Crazy Taxi. You feel more affection for Ristar than for Megaman. And you play Phantasy Star.

That last one is what prompted this article. It’s a series that doesn’t get talked about much at all these days, except for its MMO-style spinoffs in the (totally-different, yet fantastic) Phantasy Star Online series. But for a while, it was Sega’s answer to Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Between ’87 and ’94, it produced a series of influential, mostly-excellent JRPGs that were pretty major achievements for their time. And they deserve a salute.

Phantasy Star (1987)

Phantasy Star I was a pretty huge deal in 1987 (’88 in America). It came out in the same week as the first Final Fantasy, and– I know this sounds

There are like five groundbreaking new ideas in this picture.

hard to believe —Final Fantasy wasn’t the best JRPG to come out that week. On a technical level, the game is a staggering achievement for its day. It was the largest console RPG, and one of the largest console games, ever made– not to mention by far the biggest and most ambitious game on the Master System. The combat system– featuring animated enemy sprites and backgrounds that changed depending on location –was like nothing else on the market visually. Some of the dungeons were even in rudimentary 3D! Granted, the idea of a first-person maze crawl in a JRPG is a pretty iffy one, but still! Fake-3D, on consoles, in 1987!

What really makes the game a big deal, though is how much of its genre it pioneered. JRPGs are basically synonymous with Final Fantasy, but PSI is where the modern JRPG really took form. It was among the first to allow more than one playable character, and the first in which those characters were unique, with their own personalities and attributes. It was the first JRPG to use non-engine cutscenes, providing a level of visual detail to story scenes that was absolutely incredible for the time. There’s a reason it was the most expensive console game of all time when it came out, and a reason a lot of critics compared it to the first Legend of Zelda in terms of its ambition and innovation.

As for the game on its own merits? Pretty strong. Obviously rough to play today, and certain things– like those amazing 3D dungeons –have aged really badly, but for a 1987 RPG it’s a pretty impressive thing. The story and setting were plenty innovative, too. It was the first JRPG to use the guns-and-swords, sci-fi/fantasy blend that’s now a staple of the genre, and the first RPG to feature a female hero (named Alis). While fairly rote, the story has a lot of human elements to it that felt new– you weren’t trying to rescue a princess or save the world, but instead overthrow the cruel king whose robot-cops murdered your brother. While the story is bare-bones and the translation is… questionable, it was one of the first RPGs to be driven by its characters’ personal motivations rather than “you should go save the world now.” Also, it was one of Yuji Naka’s first games. That guy is awesome.

Phantasy Star II (1989)

“You like that?” Sega said. “You like a game that’s big, has lots of characters in it, and ends with you facing an ultimate evil? How would you like a game that is JUST CRAMMED FULL OF THAT?” And then they skateboarded away chugging their Surge, because they were Sega.

If there’s two words for PSII, they’re “bigger” and “darker.” It takes place a millenium after the first game, when high-tech terraforming and a system of sueprcomputers has turned the desert planet of Motavia into a paradise. Or… sort of. This is where the second game in the series gets interesting. As it goes on it becomes more and more clear that you live in a police state, and that the paradise is falling apart at the seams. Whereas the first Phantasy Star started by showing you that the king is evil and should be overthrown, the second makes the system much more insidious and deeper-running, and makes you a part of it for much of the game. There’s not a singular bad guy running things, and there’s a real sense of despair that pervades a lot of the game.

Sega, pictured doing what Ninten-didn't.

Sega, pictured doing what Ninten-didn’t.

There’s two things here that are especially important. The first, and the most famous thing to come out of the game, is the fact that one of the main characters freaking dies. This was the first RPG where this had ever happened. It was huge. She’s part-human, part-monster, and the protagonist has been protecting her from bigots for most of the game. She’s the second-most important character in the game. And when she dies, it’s because of you— she’s biologically connected to one of the game’s villains, and defeating that villain means she dies. Beating the boss means killing a character who’s been with you since the beginning. Gamers had never seen an RPG character die for good before, and this game made them responsible for it.

The other is the ending. The bleak, bleak ending. By the end, millions of people are dead,

an entire planet is destroyed, and the computer system that ran the ecosystem is collapsing and taking the world’s environment with it. You finally face down the aliens

"Turns out it's man."

“Turns out it’s man.”

that are controlling your government and leading to your people’s extinction– turns out, in a corny twist that was pretty cool for the day, that the evil invaders were humans from the distant planet Earth –and you don’t. win. The game ends with your team trapped on the human ship, knowing there’s no way back, fighting for as long as you can and taking the ship down with you. The world is “saved”– although Phantasy Star IV highlights how small of an achievement that is –but all the characters are pretty much guaranteed to die, unknown and unremembered. It’s notable that even in PSIV, where almost every character and event from earlier in the game gets acknowledged, this game’s heroes have been effectively erased from history. It’s an ending that would be dark even by modern standards, and was part of what made the game’s narrative revolutionary.

The gameplay is… something of a mixed bag. It was the biggest game ever, of any system, when it came out, and it shows. Part of how it shows, though, is that every single dungeon is sprawling, labyrinthine, and brutally hard (the first dungeon in the entire game is about as big and maze-like as the most difficult ones in PSIV). The game is incredibly heavy on grinding and most of the player’s progress is pretty slow. Similarly, combat is tough as nails, with enemies dealing a ton of damage and random encounters being frustratingly common. The game’s biggest gameplay innovation does grow out of grappling with this difficulty, however– the only character you need to have in your party at all times is the protagonist Rolf, whereas there’s a large roster of side characters with specialized skills you can swap in or out every time you visit home. If a dungeon is too hard you can grab a doctor, or if you’re having trouble with groups of enemies some characters can attack multiple targets at once. It’s not enough to keep the game from getting too frustrating, but the ability to construct and manage an RPG party in this level of detail helped give the game more depth and encouraged the player to approach every challenge tactically.

Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom (1990)

maia

Sega, pictured doing what Bio-wouldn’t yet.

Phantasy Star III is the only game in the series that has real, serious problems that can’t be excused by its time. It’s incredibly ambitious, but it’s also deeply, deeply, flawed, and the only one of the core four games that doesn’t really seem that important to game history. If this list is making you hanker for some old-school RPGs and a series marathon, this is one you can probably skip.

First, though, that ambition. You start the game as Rhys, a prince of a war-torn kingdom trying to rescue his betrothed from a dragon. You then discover that your stereotypical Western fantasy kingdom is, in fact, just one of several gigantic environments on a colony ship (evacuated from the same planet that was destroyed in Phantasy Star II), team up with a couple of maintenance robots, and are then given the choice to marry either your original love interest or the woman who’s been aiding you in your quest.

Then you play as Rhys’s child for the next third of the game. This was Phantasy Star III‘s big focus, and where a lot of its resources went: it spans three generations, and which characters you play as depend on what choices you make in previous sections of the game. Characters will inherit the skills of their parents, meaning that depending on who marries whom you can end the game with a radically different party layout. It meant a

Come on, Sega. You're better than that.

Come on, Sega. You’re better than that.

branching storyline, a huge cast, long-term consequences for player choice… and a lot of problems. It was a mechanic that was definitely ahead of its time, but it was also ahead of the hardware of its time– that amount of branching decisions had to fit on a cartridge the same size as Phantasy Star II, meaning that many of the game’s central characters were palette-swapped versions of each other, that there wasn’t time or space to really establish their personalities and motivations, and the game was critically short on memory. Animated enemy sprites were gone, combat animations regressed to the level of Dragon Warrior, and the plot was fairly bare-bones.

That’s the problem with Phantasy Star III— it sunk a lot of its resources into the generational mechanic, and that mechanic isn’t enough to make up for how much it cost the game. The enemy design is pretty awful, battle backgrounds are a copy-pasted mess, the combat system is much less deep than its predecessor, and the soundtrack ranges from passable to bad to this is seriously one of the worst video game songs of all time. The game’s still not bad– no contemporary critic though it was as good as PSII, but it got fairly positive reviews– but these significant problems coupled with its very loose ties to the series’ overarching story mean that it’s definitely skippable.

Phantasy Star IV: End of the Millenium (1992/94)

It's the teenage catgirl who's only one year old! God bless Japan.

It’s the teenage catgirl who’s only one year old! God bless Japan.

What isn’t skippable– for fans of the series, fans of JRPGs, or anyone –is Phantasy Star IV. Whereas every other game on this list has to be qualified with phrases like “for its time,” the series’ fourth installment is an absolute classic and still holds up fantastically well. It’s probably the best non-Sonic game on the Genesis, and one of the best-looking, best-sounding games of its generation.

Plotwise, it’s clear that a lot of work went into PSIV. It was intended to be the last traditional Phantasy Star game and its writers went all-out in both giving the series a great ending and paying tribute to the games that had led up to it. There’s an impressive, and successful, effort made to take the previous three games and tie their stories into a fairly consistent story– the game’s world gets a more fleshed-out history, the actual purpose, plans, and origin of recurring antagonist Dark Force is revealed, and many of the setting’s disparate elements are tied together. On the smaller scale, this is one of those games where it’s clear the developers had a deep love for the series they were working on, as a whole host of side characters, quests, items, and ideas from previous games make appearances. (The quality of the writing’s also helped by Sega’s choice to give the creators complete creative control, meaning that every aspect of the plot and characters arose out of what the artists wanted rather than what would sell or what corporate wanted).

One of the best things about Phantasy Star IV, like II, is the extent to which its plot eschews heroics and derring-do. After the destruction of their homeworld in the second game, Parmanians– basically humans, and the race to which most of the main characters belong –have colonized the two other worlds in their solar system. But they’re just barely surviving. The game is almost post-apocalyptic, as all of the sci-fi technology of the previous entries is either lost or decaying (leading to the rare time random encounters have an in-plot justification: the world is overrun with monsters, meaning that only armed travelers can move between settlements), there’s no unified government, and the terraforming systems meant to keep the worlds habitable are slowly running down and malfunctioning. Even by the end of the game, after the horrible demon-monster that threatened all life is defeated, it’s clear that the game’s world is never going to recover or be much less hostile to human life. While not as dark or desolate as II, the game still puts you in the twilight days of human civilization (Phantasy Star Online actually picks up from this, as you attempt to colonize a new home after this collapse). And speaking of the ending– in a medium driven by sequels, the decision to conclusively end a long-running and well-respected series, and to do so in such a bittersweet and nuanced way, is incredibly admirable.

Chaz has unique commentary on everyone's kitchen. None of them are as clean as his.

Chaz has unique commentary on everyone’s kitchen. None of them are as clean as his.

This is kept up by the protagonists, who are an incredibly motley and diverse bunch. While they’re all decent people, none of them is outright heroic– you’ll make a good amount of your early-game earnings from the party leader extorting one of your other party members out of his wedding fund in exchange for your protection. Your wizard is a cocky know-it-all who thinks that being able to use magic makes him the coolest guy around, your healer a cantankerous troublemaker with a terrible sense of humor, and even the game’s hero is a panicky novice who wants to get all these problems over with so he can settle down to an ordinary life full of interior decorating and being oblivious to women hitting on him. The mixed bunch of characters (who are often  argumentative and at cross purposes) and rough, dirty world help keep the game from falling into the heroics or melodramatics that can drag other RPGs down.

The gameplay in Phantasy Star IV is rock-solid, although not as deep or complex as its rough contemporary Final Fantasy VI. Turn-based combat is fast-paced, the battle system is fantastic-looking (with probably the Genesis’s best sprite work), and the decision to divide characters’ special abilities into more generic Techniques (which draw from mana) and Skills (which are unique to each character have limited uses depending on the character’s level) adds some additional depth and makes each character feel unique in combat. The characters themselves are also well-designed– most of them have two or three specializations,  so that you’re never too dependent on one party member and they can work together in different ways (including combining two or three different characters’ attacks into powerful and cool-looking combos). The game also does an admirable job of actually reflecting characters’ growth and personalities through its mechanics; in the most notable example, the protagonist’s recognition that he needs to take responsibility and become a leader coincides with the point in the game where he develops a wider base of skills and starts to become the core member of your party in battle.

It's like if H.P. Lovecraft designed Magic Eye pictures.

It’s like if H.P. Lovecraft designed Magic Eye pictures.

Probably the game’s biggest triumph, though, is its visuals and music. The art design and graphics are absolutely gorgeous, which certainly doesn’t hurt that combat system– the animations for characters’ attacks and abilities are really, really good-looking and have a sense of motion and energy that really suits the fast, streamlined combat. Settings and environments look lush and feel atmospheric, and there’s a real sense of awe as you enter some of the game’s more impressive settings. This is helped along by the music– some of the best of the era, and up there with the Sonic games as the Genesis’s best. Some of the music is a little goofy (but endearing), but for the most part it’s an incredibly impressive soundtrack that also helps establish a great sense of place and suits the game’s sense of mystery and desolate setting.

End of the Millenium

In the end, Phantasy Star IV may represent the series’ biggest achievement: a quartet of games that tell an overlapping, continuous story. Compared to the in-name-only nature of the Final Fantasy series or the stand-alone sequels of other games of the time, this is a special thing. Even given the variable quality and tenuous connections that link some of the games, it’s an impressive legacy. Each of the games is very much its own unique entity, but taken together they represent both several years of strong RPGs and a great look at gaming history. Made when RPGs were being born and molded, they’re  an interesting example of a lot of gameplay and narrative firsts and a new perspective on the genre that’s often been overlooked. While some of the games may be more interesting to historians than to players, it’s a landmark series that honestly deserves more mention for its innovation and greatness.

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